The convoy arrived as the United Nations expressed growing alarm over the plight of Eritrean refugees in Tigray and appealed for urgent access.

Ethiopian refugees who fled Tigray region queue to receive food aid within the Um Rakoba camp in al Qadarif state on the border in Sudan December 11, 2020.
Ethiopian refugees who fled Tigray region queue to receive food aid within the Um Rakoba camp in al Qadarif state on the border in Sudan December 11, 2020. (Reuters)

The first non-governmental aid convoy since fighting erupted last month has arrived in the capital of Ethiopia's northern region of Tigray carrying desperately needed medicines and other items, the International Red Cross said.

The government restricted access to the region after fighting began on November 4 between the government and a rebellious regional force. The conflict in Africa's second-most populous nation is believed to have killed thousands of people and displaced around 950,000.

The United Nations and other agencies have not been able to deliver aid although the government says it has sent food and other supplies.

The convoy of seven white trucks that arrived in the city of Mekelle was organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Ethiopian Red Cross, the ICRC said on Saturday.

The government says it has defeated forces loyal to the region's former ruling Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and struck a deal with the United Nations to allow aid.

But some aid agencies and donors say the agreement is too restrictive and security remains a problem; one UN security team was shot at last weekend.

Nearly 50,000 refugees have crossed into eastern Sudan since early November. Nearly 15,000 are at Um Rakuba camp, where long lines of people waited for food with plates in their hands and new arrivals constructed shelters using tree branches.

"We don't have enough food or shelter here, but I am too scared to go back," said Tewelo Gabrageres, 35-year-old trader.

Throttled healthcare system

Healthcare facilities in Mekelle have been paralysed after supplies of drugs and other medical items like surgical gloves ran out, the ICRC said. Ayder Hospital, the region's main referral hospital, was forced to shut its intensive care unit and surgical theatre because of the shortages and an inability to run the generator.

“Doctors and nurses have been ... weeks without new supplies, running water, and electricity,” said Patrick Youssef, the ICRC's regional director for Africa. “This medical shipment will inject new stocks, help patients, and reduce those impossible life-or-death triage decisions.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the winner of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, on Friday said his government would be in charge of handling the humanitarian response and access to Tigray, and that Ethiopia had this week dispatched tonnes of food and other relief supplies by trucks to Mekele and other cities in the region.

Ethiopia has bridled at suggestions that outsiders might play a leading role in the relief effort and an agreement last week to allow the UN and aid agencies access to Tigray foundered, deepening international alarm, before another deal was announced on Wednesday.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said Friday it still has not been able to reach four camps housing nearly 100,000 Eritreans since the announcement of a major military offensive by Ethiopia's army against forces loyal to Tigray's dissident ruling party more than a month ago.

READ MORE: UN concerned over reports of killings, abductions of Eritrean refugees

Eritrean refugees caught in conflict

Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said the UNHCR had received "an overwhelming number of disturbing reports" of refugees being killed or kidnapped and forcibly returned to Eritrea, which borders Tigray to the north.

"If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law," Grandi said.

"I am strongly urging the government of Ethiopia to continue to uphold their responsibility towards refugees under international law, and to ensure the protection and safety of all refugees in the country."

The International Rescue Committee said Friday one of its staff was killed last month at a refugee camp for Eritreans in Tigray. The Danish Refugee Council, which also assists the Eritreans, said three of its guards were killed, but did not specify where.

Ethiopia said on Friday it was returning "misinformed" Eritrean refugees making their way south to Addis Ababa back to the camps in Tigray to receive aid and live "lawfully and peacefully".

"Forcibly sending Eritrean refugees back to camps in Tigray places them at unnecessary risk of harm and hunger," Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said Saturday.

"Eritrean refugees shouldn't be forced to be in a conflict zone where humanitarian assistance is still restricted and international access to the refugee camps still cut off."

The UN migration agency IOM on Friday denied that its buses were used to transport refugees "to an unknown destination" and rejected allegations that Eritreans were being held at one of its transit centres in Addis Ababa and processed for forcible return.

The International Organization for Migration said it was "extremely concerned" by reports of Eritreans being relocated against their will and "does not under any circumstances conduct the forced return of migrants and refugees".

It said one of its three transit centres in Addis Ababa was "taken over" by Ethiopian authorities on December 3 and that IOM "had no management authority, oversight or involvement in any activities undertaken by the authorities in the centre since that time".

READ MORE: UN says Ethiopia's conflict has 'appalling' impact on civilians

In a sign of the depth of tensions over where and how aid agencies should operate in Tigray, a UN team trying to visit a camp for Eritrean refugees on December 6 was shot at by Ethiopian forces and briefly detained.

Abiy declared the fighting in Tigray over on November 28, saying the army had captured Mekelle from forces loyal to the TPLF, and has dismissed reports of ongoing fighting as "sporadic gunfire" and not major combat.

Thousands have been killed, according to the International Crisis Group think tank, and around 50,000 people have fled to refugee camps across the border in Sudan.

READ MORE: Ethiopia rejects independent probes into Tigray conflict

Source: Reuters